Audit urges letting wildfires burn

Audit urges letting wildfires burn

29 November 2006

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Grants Pass, Ore., USA — The Forest Service should let more wildfires burn and demand that state and local governments pick up a bigger share of firefighting costs, according to an audit released Wednesday.

Forest Service personnel said protecting private property where cities meet forests, known as the wildland-urban interface, accounts for more than half of Forest Service firefighting costs, which have exceeded $1 billion in three of the past six years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general said.

By picking up so much of the cost, the Forest Service was taking away the incentive for homeowners to take responsibility for protecting their properties in the woods, the audit says. State and local governments control development in the wildland-urban interface, so they should bear a greater share of the costs, it said.

“We are pleased with the results and hope to have all the recommendations in place for the 2007 fire season,” service spokeswoman Jennifer Plyler said from Washington, D.C. The audit was produced at the service’s request.

The service has long put out as many fires as it could, despite recognizing for many years that this has led to an unnatural buildup of fuels that has increased the size and severity of fires. Part of the problem is that old trees die and turn into dried tinder.

Current policy calls for equal consideration of extinguishing fires and of letting them burn, but outside pressure and a lack of personnel make it difficult to choose to let fires burn, the audit said.

This year, fires have been allowed to burn under supervision across 257 square miles, amounting to 1.7 percent of about 14,800 square miles nationwide, according to the National Fire Information Center.

The audit urged the Forest Service to train more personnel to assess and monitor such wildfires. The service should also ask Congress to decide who has primary responsibility for protecting homes in the woods, the auditsays.

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